The third chapter of Gittin begins by explaining the importance of writing the proper names of the man and woman in the divorce document. The get must be written specifically with that couple in mind for it to be valid. The Mishnah gives an extreme example:
“Moreover, if one wrote a bill of divorce with which to divorce his wife but later reconsidered, and a resident of his town found him and said to him: My name is the same as your name, and my wife’s name is the same as your wife’s name, the bill of divorce is unfit for the second man to divorce his wife with it.” (Gittin 24a)
But perhaps this example is not extreme – maybe there were many people who had the same name. The Gemara continues and cites a case of two men in the same city, both named Yosef ben Shimon. What were common and uncommon names in the time of the Mishnah and Gemara?
We can divide the names we find in the Mishnah and the Gemara into various groups:
Names that are Biblical in origin, like those of the sons of Jacob, or Joshua or Isaac
Names that are Hebrew but are not found in the Bible, like Gamliel, Meir, Yochanan and Akiva (a derivative of Yaakov)
Names that are Aramaicized Hebrew, like Yossi (not Yosef), or Tabai (not Tuvia).
Greek and Latin names: Antigonus, Lulianus, Dosa.
We also find an interesting phenomenon that continues to this day but is rarely found in the Bible: naming for ancestors. Yosi ben Halafta has a son Halafta, Eliezer ben Hyrcanos has a son Hyrcanos and the dynasty of Rabban Gamliel is largely made up of Shimons and Gamliels, repeating each other over the generations.
If you look at a list of all the names mentioned from Tannaitic times (thank you Jewish Encyclopedia) you will notice that some names are very popular, other less so and some are not used at all. The winner in the name sweepstakes in Mishnaic times is clearly Shimon (thirty-three of them) followed by Yehuda (twenty-three) and Elazar and Eliezer (twenty-one and eight respectively). These are all classic Biblical names. Other names come from the Bible as well but are less obvious choices: Hanania, Yochanan and fascinatingly, Yishmael. Some names are variations on Biblical names: Yossi instead of Yosef. Other popular ones are not from the Bible, at least not as proper names: Abba (and later variants in Amoraic times like Abbahu, Avin and Abaye), Dosa.
And which names were never used? The ones that today would be considered classic Jewish names: Moshe, Avraham, David, Shlomo, Yisrael. These names had to wait until the Middle Ages to become popular again. Maybe the statement about Maimonides: “From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses,” is not only about his greatness but also about his name; there were no boys named Moses until his time!
Once we get to the time of the Amoraim, there are many more names and many more unusual, i.e., Babylonian ones. Huna, Ulla and Pappa were popular choices. In addition, the choice of Biblical names also widens and we find many Yitzchaks, Shmuels, Levis and Yaakovs. Yehuda and Shimon retained their popularity.
Did Jews in Mishnaic times use non-Jewish names? Anyone who discusses Jewish names invariably cites the famous midrash in VaYikra Rabba that states that the Jewish people did not assimilate in Egypt because (among other things) they kept their language and their names. But then the midrash does something interesting. It lists the names that Bnai Yisrael did NOT use in Egypt and they are all clearly Greek and Latin names common in the time of the rabbis, not in Biblical times:
“They did not call Yehuda Rufus nor Reuven Luliani, nor Joseph Lestes, nor Benjamin Alexander.” (Vayikra Rabba 32:5)
The rabbis did not like that Jews used non-Jewish names and they connected Jewish survival to holding on to your ancestral names. However, they were fighting a losing battle, as their choice of contemporary names shows. Our tractate tells us that most Jews in the Diaspora used the same names as non-Jews (Gittin 11b). But the phenomenon was not limited to the Diaspora, as any perusal of names of Tannaim in the Land of Israel will show: we have Antigonus, Pappos, Symmachos (סומכוס), Tarfon and others.
The rabbis emphasized the idea that one should not use names of evil people, asking, “have you ever heard of someone naming their child Pharaoh, Sisera or Sennacherib?!” (Bereshit Rabba 49:1) But it seems clear that with or without Rabbinic approval, people chose “secular” names as long as they were not names of idols or evildoers.
Naturally most of the names we find in Rabbinic literature belong to the Rabbis themselves, so the sample is somewhat skewed. This also explains why it is hard to know what were common female names. Only a few exceptional women are mentioned so our data base is not large enough to determine what most women were called.
What does all this mean? Every time and place has names that are popular and names that are less so. Sometimes fashions return to what they were decades earlier – go to any kindergarten class in modern Jewish America today and you will find a plethora of kids named Max, Sam, Sadie and Rose, names that their great-grandparents had! To quote Shakespeare, what’s in a name? We are not surprised today by rabbis whose given names are Paul and Mark, and we should not find it odd that there were Tannaim named Yishmael and Antigonus. But Rabbinic names do tell us something about the society in which their bearers functioned, one that was steeped in tradition but also very aware of the larger world.
Eviatar Bach, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons